14 July 2017

The Age Old Question Finally Answered! Apes or Humans?

Three years ago I extensively covered the bizarre history of this franchise - from one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time to an excessive amount of fairly popular sequels, a television show, a completely terrible Tim Burton / Mark Wahlberg film, and the more recent trilogy that has found a way to stand out by being excellent blockbuster films. Today we see this trilogy end (maybe, who knows these days) with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), which by all means is a fucking masterpiece.

Gorilla Glacier
It's amazing to me that that's been the signifier of this franchise. The producers seem to rely on just making really good movies in order to fill the seats. It's taking a totally outrageous, pulpy B-movie concept and treating the characters with realistic humanity and depth, despite the most interesting (and most consistent) ones all being CGI apes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) tends to take a while to get going and it's crazy to think back and remember that James Franco played a main character, but its last hour is damn solid. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) was a little glacial for me, and besides the outstanding opening and ending, had a middle that I think developed its themes less than people wanted it to. It was basically just a competent summer film, which is so amazingly rare that it received mountains upon mountains of praise.

I wonder if War is similar. It's likely very good, but I'd be shocked if it could be one of the best of the year. We've actually had a solid amount of really good blockbusters this year, from Logan (2017) to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), to hell, even Wonder Woman (2017) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). The difference seems to be that there are no middle-ground tentpoles this year. Everything else is so damn unspeakably terrible. We've had some other films do really well that were also really good like Get Out (2017), although that definitely didn't feel like a film that was trying to be as big as it was (that obviously helped it). War might be good, but can it stand with the rest of these? And every other great movie that's coming out this summer and fall?

That's the big question. Critically this film is already in the bag, which more and more is a huge factor with audiences who'd rather not pay a fortune to sit through hours of crap, especially when it's no big secret anymore whether a film is good or not. This will obviously boost its commercial potential, which I see being pretty solid. Dawn did decent, but that was during the weird Summer of 2014, where every single movie made like $200 million - not out of the park, but not slouching, either. There were so many that cranked that out that they overcrowded each other.

Beyond Dawn we're pretty much out of Summer. We've got Dunkirk (2017), Valerian (2017), Atomic Blonde (2017), and The Dark Tower (2017), all of which actually have solid potential to be both great films and financially successful, but none really feel like an impending $400+ million dollar juggernaut that will destroy any other flick's prospects. Its worst competition may come from Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that ought to draw a slightly younger crowd. After all, for all its inherent camp, the Planet of the Apes franchise takes its material pretty intense and adult-driven. That alone ought to give it a good niche, albeit one that Dunkirk and The Dark Tower are surely also going after. I'm generally optimistic, especially since it's all alone this weekend.

Culturally, it's a bit tough. There's an easy way this can all blend together, particularly with Dawn, which seemed to have a lot of the same themes and styles, particularly when it leaned into the eponymous War near the end. It's always nice that it trades out its human stars, though, and the winter setting with Woody Harrelson ought to be distinctive. Then again, should we play the "Name All Planet of the Apes Movies from the '70s Game?" Can you do it? Close your eyes then check below, starting with the first sequel post-Heston:

But none have Colonel Kurtz!
Beneath (1970), Escape (1971), Conquest (1972), and Battle (1973). Rise was basically a remake of Conquest and Dawn a redux of Battle (yes, I've made an effort to watch all of these - ugh), and they do a fine job. This however presents an interesting conundrum - where does War land? There is no inherent inspiration point which gives it an intriguing position in the greater mythology. So far the remake franchise (prequel isn't totally accurate - Escape on were all technical prequels due to time travel) has shied away from direct homage to the most iconic moments from the original Planet of the Apes (1968) besides Draco Malfoy's line here. And if you look at those scenes side by side you can see how it's not just an empty reference, but an inverse interaction which serves as just as much of a linchpin moment in Rise as it did for Charlton Heston. That's what makes these movies work - they aren't filled with cheap pandering moments, but they don't ignore their heritage, either. Well, by now the franchise has moved on enough and proven their superiority that they aren't really beholden at all to their source material, which is a rare distinction to earn.

That's really important - no one cares about stomping on the heritage of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (that's how it'll end! With a bunch of mutants worshiping a nuclear bomb underneath the earth!). War is free to use its inspiration to do whatever the hell it wants, and apparently create a pretty damn good movie in the process.

Since Dawn we've actually seen the franchise expand quite a bit into weird places, although still hooked on the 1970s iconography. You've got then mixing in with Tarzan and Green Lantern. I mean, who knows why any of this dumb shit is happening. I would like to see Caesar get in on that fun, though. Maybe then at least Andy Serkis can get his Academy Award nod. Not bloody likely.

This franchise is as legitimate as they can get, though. I'm weirdly not totally pumped up, though - maybe because I'm not totally interested in how it all ends. It's more like, "Oh, another battle? Cool." There's not too much to directly get excited about - especially since it's clear that we're not anywhere near Captain Taylor yelling at the Statue of Liberty, and if we were, that wouldn't matter, either. This series has been so incremental and careful that it's interesting to see the final confrontation of Man vs. Ape, and maybe that's good enough, but I don't see much reason to become invested. Unless this really is just the masterpiece it supposedly is.

What do you think? You checking it out?

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